NEWBURYPORT — In 2012, local artist John Brown stood on Inn Street and sold his work during Yankee Homecoming, offering a free print to anyone who could tell him who Jack Frost was.
For days, Brown received many "I don't knows" and "Isn't that the winter guy?" It wasn't until the 10th and final day of Yankee Homecoming that someone was able to provide the answer: Jack Frost was the creator of the very festival they were attending.
"That’s when I decided, you know what, something has to give here," Brown said. "I need to go on some kind of campaign to let people know about Jack Frost."
Brown, who organizes the Inn Street Artisans Revival each year, recently wrote a tribute to Jack Frost after he realized there wasn't much information about him online. The tribute was picked up by an online art collector and eventually crossed the path of Jack Frost's daughter, Jillson Frost, who lives in New Mexico.
She had 232 original sketches of notable New England scenes drawn by her father, including several churches, famous landmarks in Boston and scenery in Maine. Jillson, who is in her 70s, was thinking of selling the work because of a financial hardship.
But after she reached out to Brown, the two decided to keep the collection together with the hope it could be featured in a museum.
As a first step, and to bring Yankee Homecoming back to its roots, Brown will display some of Frost's work on Inn Street during Yankee Homecoming, which runs from July 27 to Aug. 4. The sketches will be on display at Sweethaven Gallery from July 27 through Aug. 1 and will move to Nauti Pearl from Aug. 1-4.
"We are able to do something with the last remaining pieces of his work and to maintain the integrity of the collection so it can end up in a place where it belongs, like a museum, instead of being disseminated to many different places," Brown said. "That’s the goal."
In 1958, the renowned artist launched a crusade to revive appreciation of the heritage and beauty of New England by bringing back natives and visitors to the region's cities, Brown said. Most of Newburyport's factories and mills had closed by the first summer celebration, leaving storefronts empty and the idea of "urban renewal" a threat, according to Yankee Homecoming organizers.
Frost's idea was to hold homecoming celebrations that would share the many historical landmarks still standing with others and allow them to learn about their hometown.
By chance, Frost and Joe Mathers, then the manager of Newburyport radio station WNBP, met on Cape Cod and Frost shared his idea with him.
Frost met with George Cashman, who along with Mathers, was inspired by Frost’s vision to approach members of Newburyport’s business community and city officials with the concept of holding the first Yankee Homecoming, Brown said.
Brown launched the Inn Street Artisans Revival in 2016 as a movement to reconnect the spirit, soul and lifestyle of the "true working artist" with the community, its culture and history.
As the founder, Brown said the revival is a significant part of the foundation for a cultural district, focusing on giving credit to the local artists and small businesses that brought the vision of an artistic Newburyport to life.
Frost was an integral part of this vision, Brown said.
"I relate to the fact ... a visionary comes along, creates a vision in which the city and community benefits from and throughout history, somehow, the visionary gets lost and gets capitalized by either corporations, politicians, and they end up taking the credit and they discard the contributions of the artist," said Brown, who added that displaying Frost's artwork will remind people of Yankee Homecoming's origins.
Local residents who visit the Jack and Jillson Frost exhibit will see intricate, black-and-white sketches of familiar places, including one of Route 1.
Another piece features a portrait of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, who connected with Frost through their love for writing, Brown said. The sketch is even signed by Earhart.
Brown noted his passion for art, preservation and history motivated him to maintain the collection. In the process, he hopes to create reproductions of the sketches and a book of illustrations narrated by Jillson, who Brown said has been down on her luck and is entering the final phase of her life. Her father's sketches are her last true possessions, he noted.
"Jack Frost had a lot to teach us and I think what he’s going to eventually teach us probably hasn’t even been made aware yet," Brown said. "I think there’s a calling in this and it’s going somewhere, I just haven’t quite figured out exactly where, but the ripples have to do a lot with here in Newburyport."
Brown is working with the Boston Freedom Trail, the Chamber of Commerce and city archives to learn more about Frost and his involvement locally.
Frost worked for the Boston Post and Boston Herald newspapers in addition to teaching at Boston College. Although there is no archival proof, Brown believes Frost was also heavily involved in the creation of the Freedom Trail and that his sketches were used in many of Boston's first guidebooks.
To read Brown's tribute to Jack Frost, visit https://jackandjillsonfrost.com/?fbclid=IwAR2YV78avKp5A_NYvNVS-Je6BN7rFiqdAyfczykoX8jahug1wLA_wxvAn-0.
To donate to the Jack and Jillson Frost Project, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/jack-and-jillson-frost-project.
Staff writer Amanda Getchell covers Newburyport and Seabrook. Follow her on Twitter @ajgetch.